Ligand Pharma antibody spinoff plan sets up competition with AbCellera, Adimab

Putting puzzle pieces together on sky background with sunlight merger

Putting puzzle pieces together on sky background with sunlight merger


Antibodies are part of the wave of new biological drugs that are bringing new treatment options for patients and blockbuster sales for companies. As a growing number of biopharma companies look to beef up their antibody discovery capabilities, Ligand Pharmaceuticals believes that its antibody technologies unit, which has developed internally for the past six years, is now ready to stand on its own.

San Diego-based Ligand, which provides an array of technologies and services that biopharmaceutical industry customers use for drug discovery and development, announced plans for the spinoff of its OmniAb antibody unit after the market close Tuesday. The split will leave two publicly traded entities, each with a distinct business focus and base of customers. OmniAb will have to fend for itself, competing against AbCellera and Adimab, two established players in the antibody discovery space.

The OmniAb platform that Ligand provides to its biopharmaceutical industry customers offers capabilities to find antibodies that have the potential for therapeutic applications. The platform is the product of a series of acquisitions, beginning in 2016 with the $178 million buyout of Palo Alto-based Open Monoclonal Technology (OMT), a company with antibody generation technology. The following year, Ligand paid $27.2 million to acquire Crystal Bioscience. In 2019, it bought the computational antigen technology company Ab Initio for $12 million. Last year, the company paid $12 million total for two privately held antibody discovery companies, xCella Biosciences and Taurus Biosciences.

Speaking on a conference call, Ligand CEO John Higgins said that when his company acquired OMT, it only had 15 partners, all of them at the discovery stage. Currently, OmniAb has more than 50 partners spanning more than 200 programs. Nearly 20 of those programs are in clinical development. Disclosed partners include Amgen, Pfizer, and Takeda Pharmaceutical.

By comparison, AbCellera has 33 disclosed partners that have begun 60 programs. The Vancouver, British Columbia-based company, which was founded in 2012, went public last year, raising $483 million. Lebanon, New Hampshire-based Adimab was founded in 2015. It has 80 partners, though a Ligand corporate presentation noted that the privately held company does not disclose how many programs have been started by those partners, nor does it say whether programs and partnerships are ongoing or have been terminated.

The business model of Ligand revolves around striking deals. The company licenses its technologies, as well as some of its internally discovered drug programs, to other parties. Fees and milestone payments from these deals provide revenue. Additional dollars come from milestones payments and royalties paid to Ligand as discoveries and out-licensed products progress in their development. In 2020, Ligand reported $186.4 million in revenue, a nearly 55% increase over total revenue in the prior year. The company does not break out financials for the OmniAb unit, but the company said in the presentation that the antibody unit has nearly $1 billion in contracted milestones.

Royalty revenue from an OmniAb antibody is coming soon. In August, authorities in China approved the Gloria Biosciences drug zimberelimab, a monoclonal antibody discovered with the OmniAb technology. The Gloria Bio drug is designed to block the checkpoint protein PD-1 to treat classical Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Ligand is set to receive royalties from product sales. A regulatory decision for another OmniAb-discovered antibody is expected by the end of the year.
“Simply put, the OmniAb business is bigger, better, and further along than we expected just a few years ago,” Higgins said.

OmniAb’s growth comes as antibody research progresses across the entire sector. In the corporate presentation, Ligand said that the antibody drug market is expected to grow from $150 billion today to more than $250 billion in five years. The company also noted that 42 antibodies are now blockbuster sellers, up from 36 two years ago.

The Ligand board of directors has not yet approved a specific course of action for the antibody unit. But the tentative plan is for the business to conduct an IPO of new OmniAb shares. Matthew Korenberg, Ligand’s executive vice president of finance and chief financial officer, said on the call that preparations are underway to file the regulatory paperwork for an IPO.

The IPO would consist of newly issued shares of OmniAb. In addition to the antibody business, the new company will include Icagen, the ion channels research assets that Ligand acquired last year. In the IPO, Ligand expects that OmniAb will issue less than 20% of its common stock. Ligand will retain the remaining shares, which will be distributed to Ligand stockholders. Reiterating that nothing firm has been decided, Matthew Foehr, Ligand’s president and chief operating officer, said that if Ligand proceeds with the IPO plans for OmniAb, the regulatory filing would be made “in the coming months.”

Picture: mikdem, Getty Images

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